Interpersonal Communication for Police Officers: Using Needs Assessment to Prepare for Skeptical Trainees

By Woods, Marilyn J. | Business Communication Quarterly, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Interpersonal Communication for Police Officers: Using Needs Assessment to Prepare for Skeptical Trainees

Woods, Marilyn J., Business Communication Quarterly

The philosophy of community policing emphasizes interpersonal communication skills for police officers. However, trainee police officers may be wary of training conducted by someone outside of law enforcement. This article lends support for using a needs assessment that helps trainers overcome organizational and personal boundaries in such a training class. In teaching interpersonal communication for groups of 8 to l2 police officers in two-hour training sessions, I learned that strategically using the results of a needs assessment could encourage trainees to have a vested interest in the class and help the trainer feel competent and comfortable.

Keywords: Communication training, law enforcement, interpersonal communication

POLICE DEPARTMENTS HOLD interesting organizational considerations that can help business communication consultants, professors, and students improve their approach to the communication training process. Most important, police culture or "the way the group thinks and behaves" (Richmond & McCroskey, 1992, p. 8) leaves little room for trust in trainers without law enforcement experience, particularly academicians (Nowicki, 1993). Additionally, in areas such as diversity training, Bickham & Rossett (1993) state that police officers are a "skeptical" audience if one offers easy answers that do not address the complex situations and nuances of the people that they serve. Lastly, law enforcement practices are evolving to meet public needs in ways that require interaction to decrease the occurrence of crime.

Based on my experience with a college-town police department, I explain how a needs assessment can help trainers prepare successfully for a skeptical group of trainees. The article's background points out the primary importance of communication to community policing and the reasons for this training. To clarify the process in my new training experience, I give the contingencies that made me want the information from a needs assessment, describe the needs assessment, and explain how the results shaped the objectives, content, and delivery of training. A portion on credibility is given for the benefit of beginning trainers and students to help them understand how the gathered information adds to one's ability to perform well in what could be difficult circumstances.

Significance of Communication to Community Policing

A pending organizational change led to the request for training in interpersonal communication. Like many police departments in the 1990s, this police department was preparing a move from a traditional approach of policing to a community-based policing philosophy. According to Breci (1994), policing has undergone changes that compel police departments and communities to work together and address law enforcement issues. Communication is emphasized in the many recommendations made for successfully implementing community policing because "community policing encourages direct, face-to-face communication--and this should also be applied to planning whenever possible" (Trojanowicz & Bucqueroux, 1994, p. 20).

Implementation of community policing is based largely on the vision of leaders of the department; however, the daily work of each officer makes it successful. Individual commitment to effective communication is needed from those officers whose jobs are often completed in problematic contexts. According to community-based policing scholars Trojanowicz and Bucqueroux (1994), "in addition to the skills traditionally associated with police work, the job of community policing officers also requires enhanced interpersonal and communication skills, as well as problem-solving skills" (p. 17). The needed interpersonal communication skills are meant to build trust with the community members in order to increase the chances for positive, helpful relationships.

As with any organizational change, there are some cautions. In the literature on community policing, police administrators are told to anticipate certain problems that I thought could affect the training in communication since officers realized its connection to community policing. Veteran police officers may be asked to alter some behaviors or activities that make them good at their jobs (Overman, 1994). Officers may feel that the measures for effectiveness and rewards are unclear. Some officers may be overly committed to the idea and anxious to prove themselves (Trojanowicz & Bucqueroux, 1994).

My Role as Trainer

This brief discussion of police culture and community policing should give sufficient insight into the organizational concerns a trainer could face. I describe below other contingencies that led me to complete a needs assessment and apply it in course preparation and delivery.

Requirements for Course

I interviewed with the sergeant who had called the Midwest university seeking a communication specialist. It was similar to other job interviews except that I submitted to a criminal background check. After being accepted as the one who would do the training, I was asked to develop and teach a two-hour interpersonal communication training session. Since police officers participate in necessary and varied training, clear guidelines for courses had been established. For officers to receive class credit, the course design and delivery had to meet the mandates of that state's Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET). Essentially, along with my credentials, the materials submitted for CLEET approval needed to include course objectives, course content and activities, bibliography, and measurements for trainee success.

Contingencies for Needs Assessment

Because employees' time is valuable, there should be good reasons for asking them to complete a questionnaire. In all honesty, I knew that the trainees had to come and that they were rewarded for attending. Along with my knowledge and experience, there was also significant research and recommendations for meeting their communication training needs. However, the two-hour time limit, the particulars of this group of officers, and the general philosophy of community policing led me to seek a process to understand these officers' perspectives. As recognized by most business communication consultants, completing a needs assessment gains information about the audience and helps design an effective training program (Arnold & McClure, 1989; for a review of training needs analysis see Chiu, Thompson, Mak, & Lo, 1999). One should also establish credibility because it leads to increased student learning (Thweatt & McCroskey, 1998).

The needs assessment had three purposes: 1) to determine how officers view their use of communication skills on the job and in general, 2) to encourage officers to anticipate the upcoming training, and 3) to decrease their skepticism by demonstrating awareness and respect for their opinions and needs (Nowicki, 1993).

Needs Assessment Design and Delivery

After meeting again with the sergeant in charge of training and perusing literature on the duties of police officers, community policing, and police communication, I developed a needs assessment instrument. The sergeant gave suggestions for simplifying the form. The questions fell into four categories: demographic questions, close-ended questions about personal communication ability, rank order questions about communication, and open-ended questions about perceptions of communicative situations (see Appendix).

In addition to helpful suggestions, the sergeant provided a cover letter for the questionnaire to help increase the response rate from his fellow officers. He distributed and collected the questionnaire through the internal mail system.

Results of Needs Assessment and Application to Training

Almost half (n = 65) of the approximately 137 officers returned the survey to the sergeant. The results of the needs assessment shaped the class objectives. For example, from the questions on communication and conversation skills two objectives were developed for the training session from which officers could:

1. Demonstrate competence in paraphrasing, clarifying, describing, and evaluating communication messages;

2. Point out those behaviors that indicate competence in listening.

Examples of the applications of the assessment to session design and trainer credibility appear in the following sections.

Instructional Class Time

The questions regarding communication and conversation skills were designed to determine the emphases of instructional material. Each communication skill is important to policing; however, their rankings of the skills showed where the priorities in class discussion should be placed. Based on 57 of 65 responses (due to missing values), the following represents the priorities for communication skills:

1. Listening (1.9)

2. Questioning (2.5)

3. Informing (3.1)

4. Observing Body Language (3.75)

5. Describing (4.17)

Listening, as their top ranked skill, was invaluable in setting the tone for the training session. I was able to use the results as a chance for compliments and lessons without the academician baggage. Listening skills along with paraphrasing and questioning were taught, discussed, and role-played. Though listening is an important skill across business categories, police culture is so strong that many officers see themselves as being in an incomparable situation. Therefore, I used examples from law enforcement to discuss each skill. With sincerity and respect, I acknowledged their unique responsibilities and this helped build rapport.

The conversation skills descriptions were written to reveal how officers may view their communication style during interactions. Based on 57 of 65 responses (due to missing values), the following represents the priorities for conversation skills:

1. Making myself clear (2.35)

2. Keeping emotions under control (2.66)

3. Understanding what someone else is saying (3.01)

4. Winning an argument (4.70)

5. Proving my point (4.90)

The priorities fit my interpretation of what police officers seek to do in problematic situations. Law enforcement members rely heavily on the community's acceptance of things being objective--black or white, right or wrong. My challenge was to take what they do in their jobs and show them how to use it when they are called upon to know the community members. I wanted to help them connect how listening skills and understanding what someone else is saying meshed well with gaining knowledge about community members. Similarly, "making myself clear" was useful for more than giving directives; it became a necessary conversational skill when viewed as a self-disclosure tool, particularly in intercultural communication. Discussion about conversational skills required more tact because such skills are highly personal.

Interactive Class Time

The interactive or practice time occurred during the second part of the class. Role-playing helped police officers learn and demonstrate new skills (Trojanowicz & Bucqueroux, 1994). For the best outcome, the scenarios needed to be applicable to this particular community. Therefore, from the needs assessment, I developed scenarios using their revelations about communicative encounters considered confrontational and those considered positive. The written examples were varied and provided insights for my purposes. The scenarios included such things as handling verbal conflict between family members, talking with people with non-cooperative attitudes, helping someone from a different ethnic background, and getting to know teenagers. The scenarios were randomly selected from an envelope.

Taking the class from a lecture/discussion mode to a role-playing/interactive mode required me to maintain control over a group that prides itself on being in control. I quickly learned to enlist the participation of officers before breaking them into dyads. Discussion followed the completion of the role-playing to cover difficulties and different approaches.

Other class activities included a communication skills pre-test, an exam, and a class evaluation. Keeping control of the time was imperative because another training class followed mine.

Closing Comments

Each of us has reasons for taking on certain challenges, and these are met with different degrees of success. In conclusion, I provide some personal information that may help new professionals pursue and accept training opportunities in different organizational settings.

Sometimes It's Personal

Being at the right place at the right time and having the trust of the chair of the communication department gave me this opportunity. In my initial meeting with the sergeant who requested a communication specialist from the university, he made it clear that I could experience some resistance from the officers because I am female. He was forthcoming enough to say that he had not expected a black person. However, he said that my being a Black female could benefit the predominantly White male police department.

Experience had taught me that I would intuitively know when it was advantageous for training to bring the issue up in class. When we discussed how to build trust with someone who is different because of ethnicity or nationality, a transition to our differences was appropriate based on the atmosphere of the class. Discussing differences based on gender was more likely to elicit a kind of tension releasing laughter, especially if a female officer was in the class.

Sometimes It's Opportunity

Law enforcement continues to be an area of interest for researchers and of fascination for the public. I believe that community policing will provide training opportunities in medium and large police departments for the prepared trainer. It takes years for the programs to be implemented and refined. Additionally, a systematic research that addresses the communicative complexities between police officers and different members of the public is needed.


Arnold, W. E., & McClure, L. (1989). Communication training and development. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Bickham, T., & Rossert, A. (1993, November). Diversity training: Are we doing the right thing right? The Police Chief, 143-147.

Breci, M. G. (1994, January). Higher education for law enforcement: The Minnesota model. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 1.4.

Chiu, W., Thompson, D., Mak, W., & Lo, K. L. (1999). Re-thinking training needs analysis: A proposed framework for literature review. Personnel Review, 28 (1&2), 77.90. Emerald Intelligence + Full Text,

Nowicki, E. (1993, January). Training the trainer. Police, 38-41 & 87.

Richmond, V. P., & McCroskey, J. C. (1992). Organizational communication for survival. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Overman, R. (1994, March). The case for community policing. The Police Chief, 20 & 23.

Thweatt, K. S., & McCroskey, J. C. (1998). The impact of teacher immediacy and misbehaviors on teacher credibility. Communication Education, 47(4), 348-358. Ovid Full Text Record, accession number 03951294.

Trojanowicz, R., & Bucqueroux, B. (1994). Community policing: How to get started. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co.

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